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The Risks of “High-Functioning” Alcoholism

If someone is an alcoholic, you expect to see some particular symptoms. Obvious signs of intoxication, missed responsibilities, and failed relationships are often associated with alcohol abuse, but this isn’t always the case. Some people are able to consume large amounts of alcohol while remaining productive at work and at home. These individuals are often referred to as high-functioning alcoholics.

How do you know when someone is drinking too much? As a rule, women who have more than three drinks a day or seven a week are seen as at-risk drinkings. For men, the numbers are a little higher: four drinks a day or 14 a week. You are at risk if you drink more than either the daily or weekly limit. In fact, one in four people who drink this much already has an alcohol problem. Of those who do have a problem with drinking, 20 percent may be highly functional.

There are additional signs to watch for other than the number of drinks someone is consuming. Many high-functioning alcoholics are adept at hiding their problem, but there are some key issues to watch for, including:

  • The individual has three drinks for everyone else’s one or plans to only drink a small amount and ends up drinking much more.
  • Periods of blackout: not being able to remember things they said or did while intoxicated and frequent hangovers.
  • When the person drinks, their personality and behavior changes dramatically.
  • The individual tries to give up drinking occasionally but becomes anxious and irritable and returns to alcohol quickly.

If you are concerned about a friend or family member you believe may be a high-functioning alcoholic, it is important to try to connect them with help. Support groups, professional treatment, and counseling can be effective. To help them realize they have a problem, suggest that they take an anonymous, online screening at The screenings consist of a few questions designed to determine if an individual has symptoms consistent with alcohol use disorder. Once completed, the screening provides the user with valuable feedback, resources, and contact information for local treatment.

Just because someone appears to “handle their alcohol” doesn’t mean there isn’t a problem. Watch for the signs and encourage treatment when necessary.